I think I first came across Brooke Gladstone’s The Influencing Machine via her appearance on The Colbert Report. As a popular radio host on NPR’s On the Media, Gladstone is known for her thoughtful discussions. My ears immediately perked up: a complex analysis of media distortions? In comic book form?! Sign me up!
When I finally got my hands on a copy, I couldn’t have been more pleased. Illustrated by Josh Neufeld, The Influencing Machine turned out to be so much more brilliant and fun to read than I had expected. Gladstone eases readers into her key argument: the media is a reflection of society, and we’re stuck looking into a distorted mirror. As such, she throws the concept of the media controlling what people think — e.g., the “influencing machine” — out the window. She writes:
We’ve been here before: the incivility, the inanities, the obsessions, ad the broken business models. In fact, it’s been far worse and the Republic survives.
The irony is that the more people participate in the media, the more they hate the media. The greater the participation, the greater the paranoia that the media are in control…There is no conspiracy…The American media do not control you. They pander to you.
That doesn’t mean the media is devoid of any bias. On the contrary: Gladstone even lists about seven different types of media bias that people should worry about. Drawing on historical documents and events, and quoting everyone from philosophers to former U.S. presidents, she shows that attempts to manipulate and control journalists have been around for as long as journalism has existed.
As technology develops, the news will continue be easier to manipulate. However, rather than give in to panic — or worse, apathy — Gladstone remains optimistic about the role of technology in our lives. The media-related problems that existed centuries ago are the same problems that exist now. Except now, the ability to take a more active role in shaping the media is at people’s fingertips.
The thing I love most about this book is its level-headed approach. Whether you’re liberal or conservative or fall somewhere in the middle, it’s a great book to read because Gladstone gets beyond all of that and focuses on the bigger picture. I am thoroughly impressed by her ability to talk about so many complex issues — in comic book form, no less! — so clearly and succinctly. The book is a pretty fast read, but it’s so entertaining and nuanced that you just want to take your time with it. It’s one of those books that I just want to put in everyone’s hands.
The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media was released on May 23, 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company. It will be released in paperback on May 7, 2012.